As the local economy begins to reopen after 2½ months of the COVID-19 quarantine, the Tracy City Council has considered, and rejected, a proposal that would require everyone to wear protective face masks when they go out to businesses in town.
Council members Rhodesia Ransom and Veronica Vargas asked that the matter be put on the council’s Tuesday agenda. City Attorney Leticia Ramirez presented the proposed emergency ordinance, which would require everybody over the age of 12 to wear a face covering — which could be anything from a cotton bandanna to a medical-style protective face mask — any time they enter a grocery store, gas station, restaurant, government building, hair salon, child care center or other business.
Face coverings would also be required for people standing in line to enter businesses, and the ordinance would apply to people attending the Saturday farmers market on 10th Street in downtown Tracy.
After nearly 2½ hours of discussion, including a lengthy public comment period as City Clerk Adrianne Richardson read about 60 email messages into the formal meeting record, Ransom made a motion to reject the order with the possibility that the council could reconsider the matter if state or county officials decided to mandate face masks.
Mayor Robert Rickman and Mayor Pro Tem Nancy Young preferred to just reject the proposal with no provision to bring it back, and Ramirez added that nothing would stop the city from considering a similar ordinance in the future. With that in mind, the council voted unanimously to simply reject the ordinance.
The discussion came about a week after Tracy restaurants and retail shops reopened after having to close their doors in mid-March, and about a month after the 10th Street farmers market opened for 2020.
Nearly all the email comments that Richardson read into the record were in opposition to mandated face masks. Many of those came from downtown businesses, and comments ranged from a simple “No” to a lengthy description of an interaction with the folks from Tracy City Center Association, the organizers of the farmers market. People are already required to wear face coverings while shopping at the market.
Commenters who opposed the ordinance said that freedom of choice and government overreach concerned them most. Others, including some who identified themselves as medical professionals, said that over the past couple of months, they’ve seen the variety of ways people misuse personal protective equipment, including face masks and latex gloves.
“I have seen a lot of people wearing gloves out in public,” wrote Mary Casasanta, who identified herself as a registered nurse of 34 years. “This concerns me because they are spreading more germs than if they just washed their hands or used hand sanitizer.”
She described how people keep the same set of gloves on as they park their car, go into and through the grocery store, and then go back out to their cars.
“One lady even lit a cigarette to her mouth with those same gloves on,” she wrote.
Local lawyer Steve Nicolaou added that any rule attempting to govern behavior could backfire if people filed lawsuits to claim they suffered injury or illness because someone didn’t follow the law.
“I just refer you folks to how (Americans with Disabilities Act) lawsuits have been abused by certain unscrupulous attorneys for technical violations to shake down the businesses,” Nicolaou said. “Do we really need to expose our businesses in this city to that potential liability? That’s the kind of a claim, by the way, folks, that no general liability policy will cover.
“These are hard times. I’m already getting calls from clients where people are rattling the saber, using COVID-19 as the basis of threatening lawsuits.”
Those who did support the ordinance said face coverings are known to reduce the spread of airborne particles that carry the virus that causes COVID-19, and they would rather see the city act in the interest of public safety.
“Studies had credited wearing facemasks in public areas as an effective way of slowing the spread of the coronavirus,” wrote John Garza of Tracy. “I personally would have been much more comfortable if people wear masks in public areas. I would be willing to go shopping, frequent local restaurants and visit the Farmers Market if we all took precautions to keep everyone safe.”
After hearing all the comments, Vargas said it was important to have public input on the matter.
“When Councilwoman Ransom brought this item, I supported it because I think it’s good government to have this conversation,” Vargas said. “A lot of people felt very much that we should have a policy to have the masks, and today we heard the other side, that we shouldn’t have them.”
Ransom said she had been contacted by businesses and workers in town, including concerns about the Safeway Tracy Distribution Center on Schulte Road, which reported back in April that there had been an outbreak of 50 cases of COVID-19, including one man who died, among their workers.
“Before the outbreak at Safeway ever happened, we had complaints and phone calls coming from people there telling us about what their concerns were for their health and safety as essential workers,” Ransom said. “We had complaints from people who needed to go grocery shopping, and even though we had senior hours, those people were concerned for their health because they were shopping in places did not have any rules.”
She added that although the county has seen an increase in new cases, it has also seen an increase in testing. In that time San Joaquin County has not seen such a huge increase in cases that the county’s hospitals have been overwhelmed.
“At this point, there’s not enough data to say that it needs to be mandatory,” she said.
Mayor Pro Tem Nancy Young added that government mandates don’t guarantee that the practices they require will be effective.
“I know that the county was considering this, the state has been considering this, and they may still do it, but I think at every step of the way that it’s overstepping,” she added. “That’s why I feel it should be a personal choice for people.
“While it can be mandated at any level to be worn, you can’t mandate people to wear them properly. You can’t mandate people to throw away disposable ones after one use. Neither can you make people clean them. They can re-wear them and spread germs. I can’t even take my own bag into the grocery store because they’re afraid that something may be on the bag.”